After following reckless and ruthless triad bosses across Hong Kong and China in Election and its sequel, Johnnie To returns to the perspective of the heroic underling as well as to the celebrated story dimension of 1999’s The Mission, one of the major highlights of his prolific career.
Exiled is neither a direct sequel or prequel to The Mission, but rather an interplay of similarities and divergences from the earlier film’s plot, themes, characters and stylistic approach. Expectations are thus heavily challenged, as To retains particular elements (five skilled gunfighters preserving their mateship against the orders of their boss), discards others (Jackie Lui Ching-Yin and Eddy Ko Hung are gone, replaced by Nick Cheung — on moody bad-boy autopilot — and a hammy Simon Yam, whose attempt to mimic the scene-chewing performance of Tony Leung Ka Fai in Election falls flat) and introduces new elements to vary the mix (a sharpshooting cop, an old-fashioned gold heist, a gunfighter’s dream of a more stable existence as the patriarch of a nuclear family).
Stylistically, Exiled shares the montage-driven approach of Throw Down rather than the long-take choreographic approach To championed in Mission and PTU. Like the judo bouts in Throw Down, Exiled‘s gunfights are a frenzied extravaganza of selectively framed and rapidly edited actions in low-lit environments, interspersed with elaborate slow-motion long-shots that withdraw us from the interior of the melees in order to highlight abstract features, such as staging, composition, music and chiaroscuro effects. Mr To also sustains other signature obsessions from recent projects, including a murderous battle located inside a restaurant, photographs and amateur photography as plot devices, and plenty of bonding over expensive cigars, bottles of spirits, and through the forced humour of silly jokes made at the expense of others. I’m a little sad about this rather obvious barrage of auteurist gestures, especially because an object as simple as a rolled-up ball of paper performed much the same function in The Mission when it was utilised for a spontaneous kick-around.
One of the great strengths of Exiled is the Macau setting, with Portuguese fado-style music and ornate colonial architecture emphasising the foreignness of the situation the gunmen find themselves in as they try to devise a way of rescuing their colleague and his young family without sacrificing their lives. A twisting staircase cascading down the outside of an apartment block provides the setting for one spectacular set piece, with a descending frame punctuated by blazes of gunfire from out of the the shadows under the steps as our heroes return the salvos of rival gangsters positioned at each surrounding and overhanging window.
Something of a throwback to the massively epic super-heroism of A Hero Never Dies — a film in which draining the dragon against a tree in broad daylight assumes enormously significant proportions — Exiled is a near-classic gangster/Western in the spirit of Kurosawa that will wow and convert a new generation of Tarantino and Rodriguez fans as much as it will re-affirm Johnnie To’s position among an increasingly select group of Hong Kong action auteurs.